02/27/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

If 'My Brother's Keeper' Is to Succeed, the White House and Philanthropists Must Focus on Education Reform

Through its "My Brother's Keeper" initiative announced today, the White House says it hopes to reroute the flow of boys and young men of color from the "cradle-to-prison" pipeline to the "cradle-to-career" pipeline.

The stakes are extraordinarily high.

For too long, opportunities have eluded boys and young men of color. In terms of education, White House officials note large disparities in reading proficiency, "with 86 percent of black boys and 82 percent of Hispanic boys reading below proficiency levels by the fourth grade -- compared to 58 percent of white boys reading below proficiency levels." A disproportionate number of young black and Hispanic men are unemployed or have had dealings with the criminal justice system, they added.

Working with several of the nation's most influential and well-resourced foundations, the Obama administration is teaming up with these groups as they plan to invest millions of dollars -- as much as an additional $200 million over the next five years on top of their current spending of $150 million toward existing programs -- into developing solutions and building on existing successful programs to eliminate barriers and connect young men of color to opportunities that will help them reach their potential in school, theirs careers and their lives.

"I'm reaching out to some of America's leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing especially tough odds to stay on track and reach their full potential," the president said in making the announcement from the East Room of the White House. (Click here to watch it live.)

"My Brother's Keeper" will develop solutions that "have the highest potential for impact," according to a press release from its sponsors -- which include the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The initiative will focus on these areas:

• Early child development and school readiness
• Third-grade literacy
• Educational opportunity
• Interactions with the criminal justice system
• Ladders to jobs and economic opportunity
• Healthy families and communities

I suggest we must put education reform near the top of that -- or any -- list of "highest potential" areas on which to focus to bring about the change we need to shut down the "cradle-to-prison" pipeline.

Students like Brandon Hill are proof that education reform is where we can make some of our wisest investments. And there are proven programs that are helping students like Brandon reach their potential.

An African-American student from Eden Prairie, Minn., Brandon struggled at times in middle and high school. Focusing on literacy, science, math and art skills in the face of social media and other distractions is difficult enough for any student. But children of color additionally face a huge psychological barrier with the added challenge of rising above a "country [that has imposed] a narrative of inferiority on its nonwhite minorities and especially its black population" ("What Drives Success?" New York Times column).

So Brandon relied on his family, the primarily white educators who believed in his potential, and his own resilience and character to get the job done. It was a winning formula.

Thanks to their participation in a multiyear, high-quality professional development initiative, Eden Prairie educators learned to boost academic achievement through the use of neuroscience and culturally responsive instructional strategies. Aided by these educational opportunities and the support of his family, Brandon soared, academically and socially.

He wasn't alone. The academic achievement gap narrowed by nearly 60 percent in Eden Prairie, and white and Asian-American students also made substantial gains. Despite pockets of cynicism and a tendency to blame the victims of poverty and racism for their problems, a critical mass of like-minded teachers in Eden Prairie, led by a progressive superintendent, board of education and forward-thinking administrative team, forged a new vision for its students.

Now a sophomore class president at Stanford University, Brandon -- who has interned with the White House and the U.S. House of Representatives -- writes occasionally for the Huffington Post and recently gave an acclaimed TED Talk. He has learned that relentless effort and deliberative practice are keys to success.

How do we create a nation of Brandons? There is plenty of work to be done, at school and at home.

"Restoring Opportunities: The Crisis of Inequality and the Challenge for American Education" ought to be required reading for the White House and leaders of the "My Brother's Keepers" project. In it, authors Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane describe the stark developmental differences children face in the home. Some are as basic as language: "professional parents speak an average of eleven million words to their toddlers," they wrote, where "for working-class and welfare families (the average is) six and three million (words), respectively." White-collar or professional parents also tend to provide greater enrichment opportunities, such as trips to museums, zoos and even other countries, deepening children's cognitive processing, backgrounds and knowledge base.

School provides other challenges.

"Discussions of school reforms often center on simplistic 'silver bullets' -- more money, more accountability, more choice, new organizational structures," Duncan and Murnane wrote. "None of these reforms has turned the tide, because they fail to improve what matters most in education: the quality and consistency of the instruction and experiences offered to students."

We all want to help children write better life stories for themselves. Here's hoping the White House initiative creates more futures filled with hope, instead of despair. Students in Eden Prairie, and throughout the nation, deserve nothing less.

Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at